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On Monday I sat down with Cleopatra Ndlovu, an Atlas Corps Fellow from Zimbabwe to discuss Zimbabwe’s recent elections, gender, NGO management, and a host of other issues (such as our mutual dislike of the late Sungura musician Tongai Moyo).  Cleopatra is currently serving with InsideNGO (‘a good and eye opening experience’), an organization which offers capacity-building services for NGOs.  She has been in DC for slightly over half a year and will remain here for the remainder of the year.  It is not her first visit; she was one of the young African leaders who participated in a town hall meeting with President Obama in August 2010.

This participation in turn contributed to Cleopatra’s Atlas Corps Fellow application; following the town hall she conducted several outreach sessions to Zimbabwean youth via the US Embassy and learned of the Fellowship program through Rebecca Ziegler-Mano, a EducationUSA adviser.  Cleopatra has a wide range of experience as a civil society activist and credits her mentor, Janah Ncube, who was recently named Oxfam’s Pan Africa Director, as someone who ‘continuously guided, inspired, and shared information’ with her.  Cleopatra was born in Zimbabwe’s second city Bulawayo, but has lived in the capital since her student days at the University of Zimbabwe.  She holds a BA in English and was working toward a MA in Media and Communications when the Department collapsed at the height of the economic crisis.

Cleopatra has served as a Communications Program Officer for the Women’s Action Group, one of Zimbabwe’s most established gender organizations, founded in 1983.  She later became the Director of the Women in Politics Support Unit (WIPSU).  WIPSU works with all political actors and Cleopatra has worked closely with those affiliated on both sides of the political spectrum.  She noted several female ZANU – PF parliamentarians, such as the Secretary for the Party’s Women’s League, Oppah Muchinguri, and Flora Buka, for whom she has a great deal of respect.  This goodwill does not extend to the country’s female Vice-President, Joice Mujuru. Although she ‘celebrate(s) the fact that Zim has had a female Vice-President’, Cleopatra does not ‘remember any day where [she] has stood up to speak to women’s issues.’  From the opposition, she is heartened by the work of Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga (Secretary-General of the smaller MDC formation) and Tabitha Khumalo (who has just won the seat previously held by the white Education Minister, David Coltart).

Morgan Tsvangirai, ‘the face of the struggle, face of the hope that we had’ has been embroiled in his own love triangle, as his wife was killed in a car accident shortly after he became Prime Minister.  He has had a series of relationships, including a marriage that was dissolved after less than two weeks.  However, while Cleopatra does not ‘condone how the Prime Minister conducted himself’, she noted that Robert Mugabe has fathered children out of wedlock and cast doubt on the allegations that Tsvangirai’s dalliances resulted in a significant loss of political support.

In regards to the question of the hour, Cleopatra stated that she ‘think(s) the election was stolen.’ She noted that the results appeared to have been carefully calculated, giving ZANU-PF a constitutionally vital 2/3 parliamentary majority and spoke of special efforts to target the seat of the outspoken Minister of Finance in the unity government, Tendai Biti.  I asked Cleopatra what she thought the next steps for civil society in Zimbabwe might be in the face of a stolen election.  She expressed uncertainty, but noted that any would be protestors face the burden of a ‘culture of fear, which Mugabe has instilled in people.’

We closed the conversation on a slightly more optimistic note.  Cleopatra spoke of her love for Harare’s performing arts center, The Book Café, where she has given trainings for performers on HIV/AIDS and gender.  In DC, she is a big fan of the South African purveyor of grilled chicken, Nando’s (‘the first day I saw Nando’s, I smiled’), which also has a very strong presence in Harare.  She enjoys the music they play and loves listening to music and dancing in general.  She cites Zimbabweans Dudu Manhenga (Jazz) and Alexio Kawara (multi-genre) as some of her favorites.